Review Roundup: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Given Dungeons & Dragons’ rising cultural capital in recent years, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of fantasy these days (e.g., Game of Thrones), now seems like the perfect time for a big screen adaptation of the world’s most famous tabletop role-playing game.
While there have been previous D&D movies, the less said about them, the better. As a result, a new D&D movie comes with some high-level expectations. But Honor Among Thieves packs some considerable clout, starting with a big Hollywood budget and a cast that includes the likes of Chris Pine and Hugh Grant.
So does Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves live up to the hype? Does it stand on its own amidst all of the other modern fantasy offerings? And most importantly, does it do right by D&D? Read on to find out.
The Dungeons & Dragons movie, by design, eschews those flavors of bombast for something a little shaggier and a lot more winsome. By echoing the type of anachronistic medieval fantasy movies actually made in the ’80s — your Princess Brides and your Willows instead of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin — the real magic at work here is a nonstop charm offensive.
Honor Among Thieves is built on the edifice of D&D lore, packed with totems and characters and Easter eggs that fans of the legendary role-playing game will drink in with a connoisseur’s delight. But for those, like me, who have spent their lives avoiding anything to do with Dungeons & Dragons, the film is eminently comprehensible and, in its you’ve-seen-it-before-but-not-quite-this-way fashion, a lot of fun.
Early attempts to translate the magic of the tabletop game to the screen flopped (see Courtney Solomon’s 2000 Dungeons & Dragons), but Goldstein and Daley were bold enough to try again. Their efforts will surely meet a better fate than their predecessors’. This version of Dungeons & Dragons not only checks the boxes of a satisfying studio blockbuster; it arrives at a cultural moment that embraces — even fiends for — the epic fantasy adventure.
If the original game is an engine designed to be powered by the specific imaginations of its players, the new film feels like two talented filmmakers were allowed to go nuts and craft a fantasy adventure honed to reflect their very specific senses of humor and character. And there is nothing more D&D than that.
By the end of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, one doesn’t come away with much more knowledge or a deeper appreciation for the board game’s fantasy universe, partially because the narrative is so insistent on functioning as a cliche story about the family people make throughout their lives. Unfortunately, those characters here don’t have any depth beyond their game class or where they come from.
Honor Among Thieves is an unapologetically cartoonish movie and, honestly, all the better for it. From bright displays of magic to a host of goofy creatures, the cast and crew set out to create a fantasy world that is no interest in competing with the increasingly bland pseudo-science of the Marvel universe. In fact, it is impossible to watch the film and not draw parallels to other blockbuster trends. Watching set pieces operate primarily on vibes — without sacrificing much in the way of VFX or fight choreography — is part of the movie’s unique charm.
For fans of the game, or any of its hundreds of derivative products, it’s a genuine joy to see these dynamics play out recognizably on the screen without shame, to see known locations realized in such lavish detail, and to see this world populated by the creatures that make D&D such a unique franchise. (The intellect devourer is a scene-stealer.) The movie also does a great job of capturing the different tones players might experience in their own campaigns, from horror to campy fun, and from epic high fantasy to a thrilling heist.
Fans of the game will thrill to see how co-writers/co-directors John Francis Daley (of Freaks and Geeks fame) and Jonathan Goldstein brought to vivid life Monster Manual creatures, like the pouncing Displacer Beast, a ferocious Owlbear, a “pudgy” but deadly Red Dragon, and even the comically dangerous Gelatinous Cube. Keeping true to the joy of experiencing the game itself, the filmmakers have been careful to keep the details of these designs familiar, while allowing the animation to possess a terrific bounce in its gravity.
With narration used to great effect, situational comedy, witty dialogue, and physical gags, I can’t name a moment where I didn’t laugh when I was meant to. Where other blockbuster films seem to shove every cheese one-liner into every scene for the sake of pacing and chemistry (looking at you MCU since Phase 4), humor is essential to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. The film leans into everything absurd and campy in fantasy and, more importantly, D&D and does it in an intelligent and authentic way. Every choice feels like one that could be rolled on and imagined. But, the essential nature with which the comedy is handled is anchored by the cast’s stellar chemistry.
Affection for a source doesn’t always translate to execution in terms of craft, and the filmmaking here is shoddy… There’s also a lack of world-building in a movie that should be dense with it when it comes to design. Forge’s city looks like a generic fantasy video game setting, and the opportunity to craft interesting backdrops for these varied characters is rarely taken. It looks like a film that’s going to age poorly visually.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves arrives in theaters on March 31, 2023. Watch the trailer below.